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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 24 Mar 1994

Vol. 440 No. 6

National Monuments (Amendment) Bill, 1994 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

We live in a selfish society in which there are many acquisitive people. However, benevolent gestures are made by individuals and families. The Hunt family donated a collection of works worth £35 million to the city of Limerick, one of the largest and finest private collections in existence. It is important to capitalise on the bequest and make Limerick a centre of excellence in regard to museums. Other museums in the city include King John's Castle which has been refurbished recently and is worth visiting. It is one of the finest examples of Norman architecture here. Close by is another fine historical building, St. Mary's Cathedral built in 1168. Closer to my heart is the city museum located in John's Square in cramped conditions. There is also museum space available in City Hall on Merchant's Quay but because one wall is porous the building cannot be used to house the city's heritage collection. The Minister should consider opening a museum in the City Hall where the local collection as well as artefacts which are closed off to the public could be exhibited. For too long artefacts in the possession of the National Museum have been locked away in Letterfrack and other places mentioned by Deputy Connor. If money was provided to renovate the stone wall of the building in Limerick, many important artefacts could be exhibited there.

The idea of opening a centre of excellence in Limerick is worth pursuing as it would have spin-off effects for the city. The Hunt museum in Limerick attracts tourists as well as scholars and students, people who are interested in culture. Other attractions could also be provided in the area to encourage tourists to stay as long as possible in the country.

We hear much about the Ardagh chalice, the Derrynaflan hoard, the Lisheen collar and the Book of Kells, but there are many other artefacts which are significant in a local context and which are seldom seen by the public. There is no reason these items should not be displayed for our own people as well as for visitors. Perhaps the Minister will consider this suggestion. I am dwelling on much of what Deputy Connor said but I was impressed with his contribution. It is important that buildings are renovated, with an emphasis on stonework. The Minister should use his influence with the Office of Public Works to ensure that training is provided for apprentices in this area. Skills in the laying and cutting of stone can be passed on and the experience of stonemasons should be used to the advantage of young people. Since brain surgeons can be trained in five or six years there is no reason that stonemasons cannot be trained if they have the willingness and aptitude to learn the trade. The Minister should ensure that the best possible training is provided for apprentices not only in the building of new interpretative centres but in the maintenance of existing structures.

Deputy Connor referred to the interpretative centre in Navan, near Armagh. I have not visited that centre but I intend to do so. I support the concept of providing interpretative centres in populated areas where visitors have access to the local taverns, restaurants, hotels and craftshops. This would be to the advantage of the areas concerned and would mean that the tourists would not simply go from a hotel to an interpretative centre and back again, without meeting the local people. Deputy Connor's views in this regard are in line with Labour Party policy — I do not care what feathers are ruffled in saying that.

I visited Cobh in County Cork five times in the last eight months and visited the interpretative centre on two occasions. That centre is a painful reminder of the people forced to emigrate to America, Australia and New Zealand, many of whom left from Cobh. My mother was one of 15 children from County Clare, 14 of whom emigrated to New England via Cobh. For that reason I have a personal interest in this area. The interpretative centre in Cobh, which is located on the site of the old railway station, is one of the best centres in the world. I welcome the fact that brick and stone were used in the renovation of that building. People who visit the interpretative centre usually spend the day in Cobh, spending money in the area, to the benefit of the local economy.

I opposed some of the interpretative centres referred to, not for any perverse reason but because it was proposed to locate them in isolated areas. From the media one may get the impression I am a person without common sense and practical understanding of this country, but my objections to interpretative centres were based on common sense and experience. I am a stonemason, as were my father, grandfather and great grandfather, and I speak from knowledge and understanding of archaeological sites and interpretative centres. I spent a great part of my life working with stone and I know as much about this matter as any Minister.

It was on the basis of my knowledge in this area that I opposed the Mullaghmore interpretative centre. I strenuously opposed my partners in Government on this issue and will continue to do so without apology. Even though the Labour Party is in Government with Fianna Fáil I will continue to express my views, as I do at our parliamentary party meetings, and I apologise to nobody for so doing. In a democracy people lose out, and I have lost many struggles even within my own party. Even in one's household, where the woman usually rules the roost, for the sake of peace one must sometimes compromise. In this case I am stating my views and I have no objection to people opposing me.

Much was made of this issue by Deputies Killeen and de Valera, who both represent County Clare. Deputies in the same constituency, particularly members of the same party, do not always speak well of each other. I applaud the fact that these two Deputies who are now in a party of their own, in a kind of limbo, spoke well of each other. They made a case for the farmers and landowners who experience difficulties in terms of rights of way. Perhaps they had in mind Poulnabrone Dolmen in the Burren, County Clare. I know that area very well because I frequently visit Ballyvaughan. To get to that area one has to trample over ditches and fences. Where monuments are situated in isolated areas such as this, carparks should be provided close by so that people visiting the area will not block the roads. That would be welcomed, particularly by middle-aged and older tourists.

There is a compensation culture in this country, not so much in the area of the Office of Public Works, but in the area of local authorities. The Minister should face up to the fact that an increased number of visitors will wish to visit our artefacts and monuments and natural terrain. Land should be acquired in these areas to provide facilities for them.

The objections to the Bill from the other side of the House were very flimsy. I welcome the central thrust of the Bill which gives the State more power, not in an obtrusive way but in a way that will assert the State's role in this regard. Too much of our heritage is being destroyed, lost and stolen, and we should not accept that. The State has a right not only to preserve our heritage and history but to display it in a practical way where it can be seen by all our people, particularly our young people, as well as by tourists. I welcome the Bill and believe the criticisms of it are misplaced and will be proven wrong in time and wish the Minister all the best.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Gallagher.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I fully support the extension of the State's role in the conservation of national monuments and I applaud many of the measures taken by the Office of Public Works in their conservation. I wish it had additional resources to do more. Every Member probably has a favourite monument and view on this subject. When one listens to a debate such as this, one hears interesting views about monuments which have been neglected.

I hope nobody will take offence at my statement that the waterways interpretative centre in the Grand Canal harbour in my constituency was a missed opportunity. Much more could have been achieved with the large amount of money put into this centre if an old warehouse near the canal had been coverted. The centre is very interesting from an architectural point of view and shows great ingenuity on the part of the people who built it. However, on balance, it was a waste of resources and a missed opportunity to build a really good centre for the interpretation of the waterways. I say that fully cognisant that many of the things done by the Office of Public Works, for example, the Céide Fields interpretative centre and other conservation projects, are triumphs.

I impress on the Minister my strong view that display case museums are an old fashioned concept. If I may encourage the Minister to go on a junket, the next time he is in Western Canada he should visit the remarkable museum on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. This modern museum is dramatically different from any on this side of the world — it displays artefacts of Canadian history and culture in a totally different milieu from anything we are used to. I appreciate that the staff of the National Museum are doing their best with the limited resources available to them, but the idea of displaying gold torque and amulets in a case is not the way to convey their historical and cultural context. Displaying a 20 to 30 foot long dug out canoe in a box on the side of a Victorian building which has Victorian display cases and terrazzo floor does not convey the culture surrounding the making of the artefact.

I will not attempt to describe the museum in British Columbia save to say that it created in huge spaces, which were built on an industrial scale, a sense of time and history in a way I have never seen on this side of the Atlantic. It was exciting to see that museum, from which we could learn. I do not know if the Collins Barracks project will include massive spaces, but we have had enough of the display case museum concept. Something radically different is needed to feed the appetite among tourists and the public generally for Irish culture.

There is a tendency in the conservation of national monuments to simply conserve and leave objects in a ruinous state. I do not know if this is a wise idea. There are two schools of thought on this issue, one of which believes that to restore is to destroy. The restoration of buildings is a worthy enterprise as it makes buildings much more interesting to tourists and understandable to members of the public seeking to plumb their cultural origins. Regardless of what they are used for, restored monasteries are much more interesting than a destroyed monastic ruin in a field. Even if it requires some conjectural work, which may not please every archaeological purist, it is worth carrying out restoration work if it conveys the scale, size and function of the object. The Office of Public Works should be more adventurous in this area.

I have always favoured the restoration of Lemenagh Castle in County Clare — this would have been a much more worthy project than building an interpretative centre. Tourists and the public generally would be much more interested in a castle which had been restored than a modern building which has been erected to interpret the Burren. We should be more creative in using older buildings and monuments to achieve results.

I am something of a national monuments buff — on long weekends I tramp marshy fields to get to Castleroche Castle in County Louth and other sites. People who do not bring books with them must be very disappointed when they arrive at a monument to find a bilingual notice telling then not to intefere with it.

Very often there is no notice.

Very often there is no notice to explain the nature of the monument. I fully support that proposition that national monuments should not be interfered with but if people go to the bother of erecting notices at national monuments they should interpret them for tourists. Perhaps the stonemasons referred to by Deputy Kemmy could erect stone plaques or other permanent notices. I am not talking about maps which can become mouldy or a plastic notice which may collapse or require maintenance after a few years. I am talking about permanent notices which will give tourists or people interested in the cultural roots some background information about the monument.

When it comes to striking a constitutional balance between the rights of landowners and the rights of the public to see its heritage, I am completely on the side of the public. No one has the right to tell the community they want to be compensated, except in the most exiguous way, for access to monuments. Landowners should not be liable for compensation because that excuse is a rather threadbare one in many cases. The public has a right of access to our heritage and it is a constitutional value which should be enshrined in our laws. Property owners here should realise, as Mr. Drummond said in the 19th century, they have duties as well as rights. If one owns a structure which is a national monument — and in general terms such structures should be vested as far as possible in the community — they carry with them a responsibility and not simply a right.

The Taoiseach stated in the House today it was proposed to introduce legislation to put the Heritage Council on a statutory basis which I welcome. I presume it will have a function at some stage in relation to conservation of our built environment. I do not draw a sharp distinction between Norman and Tudor structures and those of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. I ask the Minister to enshrine in our laws some protection for our built environment over and above that which exists under the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act which is primarily concerned with building suburban estates in addition to planning and zoning.

When I consider what has happened in Harcourt Street, for instance, where two houses dating from the 1780s, one of which had very elaborate internal plaster work, were vandalised and had their roofs removed, I weep because no other city in Europe would allow such houses to be destroyed at the whim of a development programme. No other city in Europe would permit property owners in these circumstances to allow slates fall off the roof and three or four years of weathering to take its toll. No other city in Europe would be so careless of its built heritage as Dublin has been.

As a Dublin representative I believe we need an entirely new set of statutory provisions dealing with conservation of our built environment. The time has come to admit that simply listing a building but doing nothing to stop someone destroying it by neglect is not good enough. If one travels around inner city north Dublin one can see the gems of architecture there that are cemented up because some of their owners choose to leave them in that condition.

We must put in place a statutory basis for the conservation of our built environment and to impose on the owners of houses in Merrion Square, Henrietta Street or Mountjoy Square in Dublin and other areas the duty of conserving them. Nobody could interpret the Constitution as it was interpreted primarily by the Department of the Environment in the past, when many successive Governments were given advice to the effect that property was simply a set of rights, that there was no responsibility attached thereto and that in a municipality there was no municipal right to conservation of the municipality. That was never implicit in our Constitution but now must be made explicit in our statute law.

Whether the responsibility lies with this Minister or his colleague, the Minister for the Environment, the time has come for new statutory measures to preserve our built environment. We must impose on owners of our architectural heritage an obligation to maintain it. We must end the reliance on the planning Acts, which are inadequate, to deal with preservation of our architectural environment. Our architectural culture should be valued in the same way as, for instance, the Derrynaflan chalice. Would we allow somebody to put the Derrynaflan chalice in their garage simply because they discovered it? Would we allow somebody to paint it, batter it or neglect it? We would not. Why are we so careless of our architectural heritage?

The north inner city of Dublin is one example of a lost opportunity to prevent urban decay. Deputy Kemmy's city, Limerick, suffered greatly from decay and the absence of a strong conservation agency with statutory powers. In a new climate we can now reverse in Ireland the tradition of neglect of our built environment but only if the Government, with its great majority, its advisers and its much trumpeted ingenuity and commitment to change, puts in place within the coming years a statutory basis to implement these measures. We have an immensely valuable culture and it is sad to see it decaying in front of our eyes for want of action being taken to express the value of caring for the environment. We must put the obligation and duties of property above the rights of property.

Acting Chairman

I now call Deputy Pat Gallagher.

(Laoighis-Offaly): How much time is available to me?

Acting Chairman

The Deputy was due to conclude at 4.35 p.m. but in view of the fact that the debate is not concluding today, the Deputy can take his time. Is that agreed?

If that is the case surely it would be my turn.

Acting Chairman

The speakers alternate from the Opposition to the Government side. We should not have a difficulty in this regard. It must be possible to accommodate both Deputies. Is it intended to conclude the debate this evening?

I am glad to see Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party working as one in this case. I thought they were operating as separate entities in the Dáil as elsewhere.

As Deputy Nealon has made his point it should be an encouragement to Deputy Gallagher to use his own time.

(Laoighis-Offaly): I do not intend to take the full 20 minutes.

Acting Chairman

In that case it should be possible to accommodate Deputy Nealon.

(Laoighis-Offaly): I compliment the Minister on the introduction of this comprehensive Bill. It should be established in law that the State expressly has a right of ownership of all archaeological objects found in the State which have no known owner. It is common sense to include a provision that the State may waive its rights. We know that the National Museum has many artefacts in its possession and has not space to display them. For the reasons the Minister stated in his introductory remarks, it is only proper and fair that the State may give up its rights in this area. It is a problem to which the Minister is devoting attention, through the Collins Barracks project. I share Deputy Michael McDowell's concerns about the various ways in which artefacts can be displayed.

Not far from my home there is a very large repository of National Museum artefacts in the former reformatory in Daingean in County Offaly. It would be reasonable to argue that some of those artefacts, relating to agriculture in particular, could be best exhibited within a rural context. I have had some discussions with the Minister on this and intend to take the matter up directly with the National Museum authorities.

I would urge all concerned to guard against the idea that, once the Collins Barracks project is in place, everything will be centralised in Dublin. Certain aspects of the National Museum collection would be best exhibited and appreciated within their own environment. I would urge the Minister to bear that in mind in the plans for the National Museum.

I welcome the provisions of section 12 providing for the establishment by the Commissioners of Public Works, on a statutory basis of a list of all monuments and places where they believe monuments are located, the lack of which to date has resulted in the destruction of an immeasurable part of our heritage. The proliferation of golf courses, new motorways and so on around the country has endangered many of these places. A comprehensive national register is to be available on a county by county basis for consultation by the public and all those who may have an interest in it. I should like this provision to be highlighted as much as possible after the enactment of this Bill. There are many groups with a tremendous interest in local archaeology and local history who have fears about the destruction of such sites. The provisions of section 12 will help highlight the existence of these sites and the efforts undertaken by those concerned to protect them.

When replying, or possibly on Committee Stage, I would ask the Minister to elaborate on the provisions of section 7 which strengthen the powers of the Garda to intervene in the usage of metal detectors on such sites, a very contentious area. Most of the provisions of the National Monuments (Amendment) Act, 1987 were concerned with the control of indiscriminate metal detecting, which was indeed necessary. However, it must be realised and appreciated that there are some genuine archaeological hobbyists out there who would be prepared to co-operate with the National Museum authorities and the Commissioners of Public Works but who fear that the provisions of that earlier Act, strengthened by the provisions of this Bill, will render such co-operation ever more difficult. I should like to think that an atmosphere of co-operation with the responsible elements of that hobbyist group could be fostered.

Some points made to me relate to the existing definition of what constitutes an archaeological area. The definition is so wide as to include and control any artefact, whether of ancient or modern vintage. Representatives of the National Museum say that a common sense approach is adopted in the application of such control. That should be the case in the application of all law. However, the area warrants further examination in that current practice, if not legislation, needs to be improved in order to remove the fears of those who wish to engage in such excavation activities as a genuine hobby. It is reasonable for such people to expect that they would not be accused of looking for archaeological objects in breach of the law, particularly in areas which are non-sensitive or have not been listed to date. Under this Bill, there will be an obligation on them to report anything they find to the authorities within four days. That should be sufficient to cover non-sensitive areas nationwide.

In reply to the points I am making, it could be argued that the provision existed in the 1987 Act for permits to be granted to such people. In practice, it has been proven to be extremely difficult to have such permits granted. I am aware of one enthusiast in my area who applied for permission to detect objects in a Victorian rifle range in an old military barracks. He was told that, in practice, archaeologists only, or people with archaeological training, could be licensed. While I can understand that the National Museum authorities might advocate such a policy, there is a middle ground worth exploring in that there are responsible elements within that hobbyist group willing, if necessary, to undergo training in aspects of archaeological appreciation. Such people assisted in my area when the Portlaoise by-pass excavation work commenced, checking whether there were any objects of archaeological interest to be found there. They are capable of working out a compromise in co-operation with the National Museum. I ask the Minister to address that matter as the Bill progresses.

If that matter is not addressed my fear is that the information network of an informal nature which obtained between the National Museum, the Office of Public Works and the hobbyists might be put at risk. For example, there were items which may not have been of a strict archaeological nature but deserving of examination which were reported willingly at local level and checked out. Such a network could be lost if a strong arm of the law approach is adopted by the authorities. This might reinforce the efforts of those endeavouring to take such objects out of the country illegally.

I ask the Minister to address the points I have raised and I look forward to his response.

I welcome this Bill. My colleague, Deputy John Connor, made a very substantive contribution so far as the overall national issue is concerned, so I shall confine my remarks to local issues.

I draw the Minister's attention to the total neglect of the archaeological heritage in the Sligo area. As he said in his introductory remarks, maps were compiled recently showing sites and monuments records, on the basis of surveys undertaken over the past ten or 20 years. No area in the country is richer in these monuments than County Sligo. There is one area in Monasteraden where continuous problems arise with regard to the granting of planning permissions, where people cannot build the foundations for a house without hitting an ancient monastery or some archaeological site. That obtains all over County Sligo, yet, there is total neglect of that area.

Arising out of the initiative of a local development group I visited Knocknarea Hill Fort, an enclosure dating back to about 1,000 BC, the third largest such enclosure in the country. There is one large, megalithic passage tomb there and 30 hut dwellings. It is not even classified as a national monument. Deputy Michael McDowell complained about inadequate signage. There is no sign or any indication of what is there, despite its great archaeological interest. That is neglect of what I regard as one of the outstanding sites of this nature in the whole country. It is one of our largest and has the remains of 30 hut dwellings. If that was in another part of the country, for example, in Meath or Galway, considerable work would be done. As far as Sligo is concerned there is total neglect.

Will the Minister inform the House what happened to the Armada ships found in Streedagh, County Sligo, many year ago? Thanks to my intervention their artefacts were kept safely in the State and I asked that nothing would be done without the authority of the State. I know court cases are pending but I would be glad if the Minister would tell us what will happen to these artefacts. I saw a reference in a number of publications to the effect that the Minister has ambitions to set up a maritime museum in Galway and is considering the suitability of artefacts from the Armada ships in Streedagh, County Sligo for that museum. I have the cuttings of the articles which were widely reported.

There is no basis for such a report.

I am delighted to hear that.

There is great interest generally in this subject.

When the Armada survivors got ashore in Sligo some were roughly treated and many lost their lives. I am generally ashamed of what my ancestors in Sligo did but I guarantee the Minister that if he sought to remove those artefacts from Sligo and erect them in a museum in Galway he might receive some of the same treatment.

There was never such a suggestion.

I am delighted to hear that. I would be surprised if the Minister would do such a thing. Those types of objects should not be centralised in major collections but placed in museums near the place of discovery.

This legislation protects them.

Deputy Gallagher referred to the folk collection. This was one of the great works of the early part of the State. We now have one of the best folk collections in the whole of Western Europe but not a single artefact has been exhibited. They were in boxes for 50 years without being opened——

That is correct.

——until I went down to Daingean, presided at their opening and started a scheme for their preservation. I am delighted with the activities as far as Collins Barracks is concerned but that does not mean there should not be local museums. In our national folk collection we have four or five examples of every artefact. Perhaps they were over enthusiastic about the collection. Therefore, we can have local museums without taking from the ambition to have a major national collection. That is very important and it should be possible to have local museums which can become major collections. As Deputy McDowell said, they should be live museums with craftsmen available, at least during the tourist season. In conjunction with the folk museums the Minister should introduce the folklore collection. Copies of the material available in University College, Dublin, and in the folk commission there should be available as an added dimension wherever there are folk museums.

I hesitate to interrupt Deputy Nealon. I would be grateful if the Deputy would please give way momentarily.

Debate adjourned.